Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
In the autobiography privately circulated two years ago and published finally in January 1978 just after his death, William L. Langer tells of his last year as a graduate student at Harvard in 1921-22. With typical industry he was both teaching an important course and writing a long Ph.D. dissertation, all within a single academic year. He relates that his situation was complicated by my relations with Professor Coolidge, who liked to have me drop into his elegant office in Widener about every day to discuss new books. . . . He was at that time deeply involved [with the founding of the] Council on Foreign Relations, [which] proposed to publish a quarterly. . . . Coolidge had been named as the editor. . . . He often discussed his editorial ideas and problems with me. . . .1
From that earliest time onward, Professor Langer was closely associated with the Editors of Foreign Affairs - as student and protégé of Archibald Cary Coolidge, as contemporary and close colleague of Hamilton Fish Armstrong, and finally as seminar teacher and longtime mentor to the present Editor. Both the magazine and the Council have felt his imprint deeply and for good.
In the case of Foreign Affairs, his formal tasks began with the single-handed writing of the Recent Books section from 1925 to 1936. Although his notes were almost always shorter than those of our reviewers today, the considered appraisal of some 150 books a quarter (shipped back and forth to Cambridge) may strike some as more than the side effort it represented for Langer. Although the section had started with the magazine, it is fair to say that Langer made it effective and widely read. In addition, he edited with Mr. Armstrong the pioneer ten-year Bibliography, enlarging and reappraising reviews of the worldwide literature that appeared between 1919 and 1932. In this, as in his scholarly work, his reading command of a dozen or more languages made his breadth of coverage alone almost unique.
In our July 1973 issue, Professor Langer has written movingly of his 50-year friendship with Mr. Armstrong and of their constant contacts. In the field of writers and writings on international affairs, Langer's unique command of the scholarly end of the spectrum was a constant source of ideas and judgment. And in 1950 the link once again became formal, when he joined the Editorial Advisory Board of Foreign Affairs, of which he remained a member till his death.
This is not the place to attempt a detailed assessment of Langer as historian and teacher. He enlarged the scope of traditional diplomatic history, making it an adventure in which the meticulous examination of documents was only the beginning of searching inquiry into why men and nations acted as they did. The two volumes that he wrote with Everett Gleason on the background of American entry into the Second World War - a four-year project sponsored by the Council - were in a sense the capstone of his career in that field. Thereafter, he pioneered in the creation and development of Russian and Middle Eastern Centers at Harvard, while in his own work he enlarged not only his own horizons but those of the historical profession, writing on the whole European civilization in 1832-48, on the importance of psychological insights for history, on population and the potato in Europe. The rigorous sense of scholarship that he always instilled in his students persisted, but the canvas of his thinking seemed constantly to expand and with it his mellowness as a person.
Through these same students he had a special added tie to the Council. Graduates of the Langer seminar have held a succession of senior staff positions here - among them Robert Woolbert, Philip Mosely, and in the present staff John Campbell and Richard Stebbins since 1946 and 1949 respectively.
Dr. Langer's two tours of government service - in 1941-46 as head of the Research and Analysis branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and in 1950-51 as the first Assistant Director for National Estimates in the Central Intelligence Agency - promoted the distinctive historical method he had perfected during the Cambridge years to the status of a national policy. In the OSS days, an organization of some 1,000 specialists, drawn from highly diverse backgrounds and endowed with widely varying capabilities, was expected (but seldom managed) to duplicate on a universal scale the kind of operation that Langer personally had conducted in writing his major books, from remorseless ingestion of every available scrap of information to the exgurgitation of an homogenized product that would forever supersede the conventional wisdom. Though scarcely distinguished as an administrator, Langer dominated by sheer force of character two organizations of high-strung intellectuals, some of whom were later to provide essential leavening at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In all of these pursuits, what lingered most with his associates - apart from his ability to master all the contemporary evidence and then to put it in the framework of his lifelong study of the behavior of nations - were his relentless honesty and his openness to reasonable argument, coupled with total scorn for any parochial or self-serving attempt to influence the content of intelligence judgments. As a-dedicated patriot, Langer lived by, and up to, the belief that scholars can serve government without for a moment abandoning their standards.
By the same token, Langer all his life fought the use of simplistic labels and themes. Nor did his own views fit neatly into any category. Of the articles he wrote for Foreign Affairs over the years, two in particular stand out in retrospect. In 1935, he not only dissected the roots of European imperialism (insisting in the process that for the sake of any orderly discussion the term should be reserved for cases of territorial control), but saw its ending as inevitable. In this he was, if one were to deal in labels, a premature "liberal" anticolonialist. Yet in 1962, writing on a "Farewell to Empire," his views of the impact of European overseas imperialism - that, for all its grave flaws, the "imperialist interlude" might have been the only way to open up all parts of the world - and his insistence that the real contemporary imperialist power was the Soviet Union, were far from the liberal stereotype.
We who were first his students and then his close colleagues at different stages of his varied career pay tribute to Bill Langer for an immense contribution to the whole field of international relations, but especially for what he did for the Council on Foreign Relations and for Foreign Affairs. His example will always be with us. But we shall miss the continuing advice and constant stimulation of a wise, learned and deeply cultivated man. He was above all a warm friend to us, as to so many others who work in this vineyard.
1 William L. Langer, In and Out of the Ivory Tower, New York: Neale Watson, 1978, p. 121.